I’m writing this from our vacation cottage in Orphir village on the south-eastern coast of Mainland, the largest of the Orkney Islands. The rain is beating on the windows, which, if they weren’t looking out into impenetrable darkness, would reveal bare hills, wind turbines, and the North Sea coast. If I listen very carefully I can faintly hear the bleating of unhappy sheep. It’s perfect weather for a vacation on the Orkneys. Everything is reduced to its essentials: land, sea, wind, rain.
The Orkney’s are so austere - no forests, no cities, and no bright colors – that they make every other place look frilly and indulgent. My first thought when we arrived here, was that if I lived in this bare landscape, I’d brighten things up a bit by painting my house turquoise or canary yellow. But most people here live in low, gray houses that blend into the hills. I understand that the traditional houses are built this way because rocks were the only abundant building material and in this windy climate it’s best to stay low and sheltered. But even the modern houses are in the same shade of gray, only made of concrete instead of stone. On many farms you can see the ruins of the old stone houses now being used as barns, while the family has moved into a newer and uglier concrete house, with a patio surrounded by concrete walls (to keep out the wind) and a plume of feather-reed grass as the only garden decoration.
But then again, who needs colors and frills when you’re surrounded by sea, hills, heather, and wetlands full of wintering swans, geese, herons, and ducks, and when the land itself is so saturated with history that practically every hill you dig into reveals an ancient Viking fort, a Pictish village, or a stone-age burial chamber.
Most of the people here are descendants of the Vikings, who settled here in the 8th century and displaced (or absorbed) the original people who had lived here since Neolithic times. The local dialect of the Orkneys, which was still widely spoken until last century, is closer to Norwegian than to English or Gaelic.
But we are here to explore the pre-Viking, stone-age culture of Orkney. Gil had the brilliant idea to attempt some comparative research on ancient burial practices, so we’re here on a family holiday disguised as a research trip.
During the European Neolithic period (some 5000-4000 years ago), the Orkney Islands were among the most densely populated areas of northern Europe. It’s almost impossible to dig into the ground here without hitting a Neolithic village or grave. The landscape is still dotted with gigantic ceremonial stones, some of which were erected over 5000 years ago, long before Stonehenge.
We’ve been touring and hiking around the island to visit archeological sites and burial tombs, trying to guess what went through the minds of these stone-age people when they transported 6-ton rocks over a distance of several kilometers (before the invention of the wheel) to erect them into circles. Did they think they could conquer the landscape by creating their own permanent marks in it? Were these stones used as gigantic astronomical instruments to mark the position of stars and the moon? Were they a message to the gods? Why did these people spent all this time and effort transporting giant rocks when their life was already sufficiently difficult without creating additional challenges. I read somewhere that when researchers analyzed Neolithic skeletons found in one of the cairns on Orkney, they discovered that most of these stone-age people suffered from severe arthritis by the time they were thirty, had deformed skeletons due to repetitive hard work, suffered from broken bones and bad teeth, and that very few of them ever reached the age of forty.
This morning we visited the Barn House Village, the remains of a Neolithic village, built more than 5000 years ago, consisting of circular stone houses with a fireplace, a stone cupboard, and rudimentary sleeping alcoves. Shivering in the icy rain, the wind blowing through my wet sweater and my boots soppy with wet mud, I felt miserable not just for myself, but even more so for those ancient people who lived here without the option of going home for a cup of hot chocolate and a warm shower, and who had to go out every day – rain or no rain - to gather food and fuel, and who, even though their life must have been a daily struggle to stay warm and fed and healthy, found the time to create giant rock monuments.
And here we are with our down blankets, central heating, hot tap water, electrical lights, and refrigerators full of food, and still we find causes to be unhappy!